SADOW: Constitutional Convention Bill Empowers Elites, Not People

It’s a needed solution, but as always the execution of the idea matters and that’s where, to date, Republican state Rep. Tanner Magee’s constitutional convention bill HB 259 fails.

The bill follows in the footsteps of many that failed to reach their destination, all proposed over the past three decades. The last major effort to do so occurred two years ago and went nowhere, although descendance of the Wuhan coronavirus certainly played a part in that.

This was HB 680 by GOP state Rep. Mark Wright, which would have opened up the whole document for revision. While perhaps wholesale changes being optimal, politically speaking that would have decreased chances for passage, for as among political elites there seems widespread agreement that big changes must come, specific agreement breaks down over ideology. Democrats don’t want fiscal changes that reduce state government’s ability to tax and spend so they rather like the inflexibility inherent to the current document in this policy area – the precise area that conservatives see as a hindrance. However, conservatives split among the need to change, or inviting change they don’t see as needed in, other policy areas, which combined with leftists’ disdain has thwarted past comprehensive efforts.

Making a convention limited isolating it to matters of finance and spending and things related to these therefore stands enough chance of acquiring the supermajorities needed for success, and HB 259 does that. It asks to tackle only local government, revenue and finance, higher education, public officials and employees, and miscellaneous provisions related to these. As with Wright’s bill, it creates an advisory committee to initiate and incubate ideas for alterations, with business to be concluded by the end of fiscal year 2023 and any changes set for voter ratification along with state elections that fall.

That all clicks, but the bill has a fatal flaw: the 120 convention delegates come in the form of nominees, five from each of the six congressional districts named by Jul. 15, from Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder (Magee is his second-in-command), GOP Senate Pres. Page Cortez, and Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, John Weimer (who ran last as a no party candidate, only one of two on the Court not a Republican). In essence, the entire process becomes a creature of these four.

The Chief Justice appointive power is absolutely inappropriate. That branch of government – even if its decisions determine policy – is not designed to represent constituents and their views but to perform adjudicatory tasks. If the point is to name delegates with constitutional law expertise, that assistance can come from staff or especially the advisory committee.

Of course, Edwards would name appointees insufficiently committed to the corrections needed to encourage right-sized state and local government, if not try for the opposite. Schexnayder and Cortez have had their ups and downs in doing that as well in guiding such bills that have passed, or in obstructing those that failed, over their two years in leadership, so their commitment to making desirable change also isn’t all that assured.

In fact, with too few delegates committed to streamlined government, you could have attempts to make it easier to raise taxes and spend more. Perhaps the best way to judge whether this method of elite nomination seems wise is to transform the selection question into the following: would you buy a used car from any of these three guys?

No, Wright’s bill had a much better idea for delegates: elect three from each of the 39 Senate districts, where none could serve concurrently as a legislator (better still would disqualify recently-serving legislators as well and even in some way extend the ban to certain local elected officials). This gives the people a true say over the outcome and certainly provides a far greater chance of having a bias towards the voters rather than in the direction of elected officials with a vested interest in the current system, and especially avoids mimicking four men’s desires much more likely to produce a set of insufficient, even counterproductive, changes meriting ballot box rejection and wasting the entire opportunity.

Graft something like Wright’s selection method onto HB 259 and that can work with voters as the ultimate backstop. Fail to do so even while retaining the remainder of the bill and it’s not worth the paper it’s written upon. Empowered people, not elites, should drive this process.

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